Internet memes have existed for nearly as long as the internet itself, yet they weren’t the first memes.
The Biologist and famed author Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”.
Dawkins argues that ideas and behaviours spread through society from person to person through imitation, or in the case of internet memes, by sharing on social media platforms.
While we think of memes as images, videos, or GIFs with a funny caption, they can also be ideas, behaviours, spoken phrases, or even fashion styles in the real world.
Even names like Karen, Sharon, Becky, and Chad have become synonymous with undesirable human behavioural traits through internet memes.
People made famous by becoming or creating a viral internet meme face a unique problem; how can they monetize their image rights after their image has freely circulated the internet as a meme for years or even decades?
While the internet is global, copyright laws are not. They rarely protect creators from copyright infringement on the web.
Chris Torres, the creator of the Nyan Cat
meme, describes the problem as follows, “When something is on the internet, people assume it is something that can be taken for commercial use, without attribution.”
To circumvent this problem, people who own the rights to recognizable internet memes are minting
and selling digital copies of their memes as non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The most recognizable and popular memes are already selling for megabucks.
While NFTs don’t necessarily grant copyright ownership of the asset, they give artists a way to be compensated for their work or the use of their likeness.
For the people who got accidentally famous after memes featuring them went viral, the cash raised from the sale of their meme NFTs feels long overdue. One or two won sponsorship deals from their unexpected fame, but most never made a penny.
NFTs also provide professional photographers like Jeff McCurry
, who took the widely circulated photos of Harambe the gorilla that later became a meme, a way to cash in on their work as well.
Below are some of the internet’s most recognisable memes that have recently been minted and sold as NFTs.
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An animated cat with a Pop-Tart for a body flying through space to the tune of Japanese pop music. What’s not to love?
Nyan Cat was created by Chris Torres in April 2011, initially as a YouTube video which was later turned into GIFs and images.
Torres minted Nyan Cat as an NFT in February 2021 and sold it on the Foundation
platform for 300 ETH
, which was worth $590,000 at the time.
During an interview with Nasdaq
, Torres said “I’m very surprised with the success, but I think I’m most glad knowing that I’ve basically opened the door to a whole new meme economy in the crypto world.”
Torres later teamed up with Snoop Dogg to create “Nyan Dogg
” to celebrate 4/20. Nyan D-O-Double-G later sold for $33,000.
Since minting and selling Nyan Cat, Torres has helped other meme creators to financially capitalise on their creations, including Laina Morris, otherwise known as the overly attached girlfriend, as well as Bad Luck Brian.
Who isn’t motivated by a fist-pumping baby?
Success Kid is the ultimate feel-good meme, featuring an 11-month-old baby called Sam intensely staring into the camera and fist-pumping. Is he relishing a recent triumph or hard-won success? Or is he gearing up to eat a fist full of sand?
The Success Kid meme is now so popular that it was used by the Obama administration to promote immigration reform as well as Coca-Cola during their Superbowl advert.
The meme was also used by Virgin Media in the UK
its new HD TV channels.
The Success Kid NFT sold
, worth $51,841 at the time
, on the Foundation platform.
This early YouTube video is undoubtedly one of the greatest gifts the internet has ever given us.
The clip features British siblings, Harry and Charlie, aged three and one, sitting on an armchair watching TV. For reasons known only to Harry, he decides to put his finger in baby Charlie’s mouth, who then promptly clamps down with, however, many teeth he has, prompting a hilarious yelp from Harry.
Through an online auction
, the viral clip sold for $760,999 in May 2021
. The winner was offered the chance to make a parody of the video featuring Harry and Charlie, as well as the option to take the video off YouTube, which the buyer elected to do.
The original video had nearly a billion views prior to its removal from YouTube, making it the most popular viral video of all time.
Scumbag Steve, otherwise known as Blake Boston, has come to represent the freeloading, inconsiderate, and often opportunistic “bro” of the internet. He represents guys who are just terrible in every way imaginable.
Boston became the internet’s favourite punching bag by sheer fluke after uploading some photos taken by his mother to Myspace in 2006.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Boston had been working as a chef but found himself out of work when the US economy shut down. Boston had the meme minted and sold for 30 ETH, or $54,000, to raise funds to support his family.
Creepy, sinister and devilish — words that are not normally associated with a smiling four-year-old girl, yet they accurately surmise what disaster girl represents.
Disaster Girl, real name Zoe Roth, sold
her image as an NFT for 180 ETH, worth $500,000
at the time, on the Foundation platform.
In an interview with the New York Times
after the sale, Roth said, “The internet is big. Whether you’re having a good experience or a bad experience, you kind of just have to make the most of it.”
The “Overly Attached Girlfriend” meme represents some of the most extreme personality traits you really hope your other half isn’t hiding from you.
The original image was taken from a parody video
on YouTube created by Laina Morris
in response to Justin Bieber’s song “Boyfriend.”
The video was immediately picked up and shared across Reddit, reaching around 170,000 views on the first day.
The now infamous clip includes lyrical
gems such as “If I was your girlfriend I’d never let you leave” and “Don't hide secrets in your house cuz boy I stole the key.”
Morris sold an NFT of the original image on Foundation
in April 2021 for 200 ETH, worth $411,000 at the time. Chris Torres, the creator of Nyan Cat, helped Morris with the sale.
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